Rebuilding The Future: How BioWare Can Bounce Back
Step Two: Rebuild Your Community
Few developers have enjoyed the shut-up-and-take-my-money adoration from fans that BioWare has during the bulk of its existence. Occupying a space somewhere in between Tim Schafer and Dan Hauser, the company’s every game was greeted with the kind of fervent enthusiasm usually reserved for fans of obscure musicians, except the fanbase in this case happened to number in the millions. While it’s very common now to hear people saying that they just ‘knew’ the company was doomed the second Electronic Arts bought it, the reality is that it was in the immediate aftermath of the EA purchase that BioWare released the games that will almost certainly be forever linked to its golden age, Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins.
Both games contained excellent RPG mechanics, vast, explorable worlds, riveting combat, thrilling adventure, and unique takes on genres (sci fi and fantasy) that have been dominated for decades by a couple of ossified, omnipresent aesthetic frameworks. However, the setting and gameplay weren’t what made fans care. What made BioWare matter to millions of gamers is that, despite heavy themes and bleak overtones, their games also wallowed in an inclusive, optimistic view of the human – or if you prefer, alien and/or magical being – experience that expressly advocated humanism, tolerance, inclusivity, and the simple idea that it might be possible to improve the world, no matter how awful we’re capable of being.
The Mass Effect galaxy is one in which strength comes from people seeing past their differences, from sharing cultures, and from doing everything possible to avoid violence (and considering this is in service to a game containing massive destruction, that’s saying something). Dragon Age: Origins presented the possibility of overcoming systemic racism, and even rising above the class divisions imposed by smaller-minded people. Both games presented a world with far greater romantic and sexual freedom than anything seen in mainstream video games before, with same-sex, interracial, even interspecies (sapient species, you sick sick person) relationships (and in DAO’s case, orgies. No, seriously.) And at their core, they contained truly moving stories about the power of friendship and family. Think Star Trek for an era when the culture of geeks is no longer seen as something lame and mockable, and you get the way BioWare fans felt about these properties.
And BioWare loved the fans back. Over the company’s life, it made a concerted effort to engage with fans on the forums, encouraged tremendous participation from them as their games were developed, and as often as possible made the fans feel like a part of a larger community. Perhaps the best example of this aspect of company culture was the way that BioWare’s David Gaider issued this epic, wonderful smackdown to homophobic gamers complaining about the same sex relationship option in Dragon Age 2.
Unfortunately, in the last two years another troubling perception of the company began to emerge. Mass Effect 2 was widely praised, but fans expressed concern that the first game’s strong RPG elements had been watered down; this was seen as a troubling sign that BioWare was getting away from their core gameplay experience. A year later, Dragon Age 2, though critically acclaimed, received many complaints from fans who rightly noted the recycled levels, recycled enemies, and seemingly endless glitches that suggested it had been rushed out, instead of given the development it deserved. Unfortunately, a BioWare employee was caught red-handed participating in blatant sock puppetry on Metacritic, denigrating the fans who complained in language that felt personally insulting to people who only wanted to play a great game.
But this was nothing compared to the way the company responded to the fallout over Mass Effect 3. Mass Effect 3 released with Launch-date, on-disc DLC composed of content clearly created for the main game that was then removed just to squeeze a little extra money out of customers. And if that wasn’t enough, the ending of Mass Effect 3 resulted in the biggest backlash in recent memory. Unfortunately, BioWare responded to that backlash in the most ham-fisted way possible. First, they largely ignored it, with figures like Casey Hudson granting softball interviews in which the controversy was never mentioned. Then, members of the BioWare forums reported a rise in the company finding reasons to shut down discussions critical of the ending. It took nearly a month for BioWare to admit the scale of the backlash and even then, they largely avoided a substantial discussion of what fans were upset about. To this day, even after the release of the Extended Cut, the breach has not been repaired. (The comments on this recent newspost are proof of that.)
Whether fair or not, it cannot be denied that BioWare now suffers from the perception that it no longer values its fans as members of the community it deliberately cultivated for years, but as mere customers, from whom no disagreement or dissatisfaction can be expressed. And with the departure of nearly all of the company’s long time high ranking employees, the man widely seen as responsible for this problem, Mass Effect series director Casey Hudson, is now the face of the company.
I personally think that missteps in the Mass Effect 3 disagreement aside, Hudson’s work for the company speaks for itself. He spearheaded Jade Empire at a time when BioWare hadn’t produced a game that wasn’t licensed content since 1996′s Shattered Steel, and was the primary creative force behind the Mass Effect universe that fans responded so passionately to. Casey Hudson is clearly a visionary responsible for some of the greatest gaming experiences of the last 10 years. There’s no reason he can’t restore the respect and admiration he once enjoyed with just a little effort. And the best way to do that is to fix the relationship with fans, which means reversing course from nearly two years of bungled outreach.
If a single lesson can be learned from the Mass Effect 3 ending controversy, it’s this: BioWare should engage with unhappy fans directly. Do not choose only to listen to ill-defined ‘constructive criticism‘. Do not simply avoid any mention of obvious controversies. As in past years, begin from the premise that every member of the community, or at least those members banding together to talk about something bugging them, should get a real response. Ignoring complaints, pretending a problem doesn’t exist when everyone can see it plainly, these things just makes a person look like a jerk.
That’s especially true in the case of the aforementioned sock puppetry, which was both shameful, and shamefully handled. Whatever the truth of the employee’s official sanction, people certainly felt that BioWare had, to be blunt, committed a serious a dick move. BioWare’s official statement, “Of course the people who make the game vote for their own game. That’s how it works in the Oscars, that’s how it works in the Grammys and why I’m betting that Barack Obama voted for himself in the last election,” only reinforced the notion that the company was choosing to disregard a sizable number of their community.
In short, BioWare needs to essentially do the opposite of what it’s done since Dragon Age 2 was launched. This isn’t to say BioWare should simply do whatever fans tell them – they really should care about their, yes, artistic integrity, enough that they make the games they intend to make, regardless. But by reigning in petulant attacks on critics, by acknowledging quickly when fans are upset, by actively engaging their impassioned community instead of cherry picking it, they’ll do a lot to reassure that community that they give a damn about it.
In fact, we know they do; no company that didn’t care about its community would risk political controversy by telling bigots to STFU.